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Can You Write Off Face Masks, Hand Sanitizers on Your Tax Return?

IRS offers tax breaks for personal protective equipment during pandemic

Protective mask, medical gloves and hand sanitizer displayed on red background

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En español | If you're still scrambling for tax deductions, here's one you may have overlooked: the cost of hand sanitizers, masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) you bought to protect yourself from COVID-19.

Deducting medical expenses

Normally, you can't deduct nonprescription medical expenses (except insulin), and you can't deduct most items for general health, such as dental floss or vitamins. But Congress has made an exception for items you buy to protect your health during the pandemic.

The Internal Revenue Service says that any amount you paid for PPE with the primary purpose of preventing the spread of COVID-19 is deductible as a medical expense. If you stocked up on disinfectant wipes, for example, you could use those costs as a medical expense on your 2020 federal income tax return. Similarly, you can deduct out-of-pocket costs for masks, gloves and other PPE. You could also deduct the cost of diagnostic services, such as COVID-19 testing fees.

There are two big hurdles to overcome with medical deductions. The first is you that your itemized deductions need to be higher than the standard deduction. Otherwise, itemizing deductions won't reduce your taxes (or increase your refund) as much as the standard deduction would.

For single taxpayers and for married taxpayers filing separately, the 2020 standard deduction is $12,400. People who file as head of household have an $18,650 standard deduction, and those who are married and filing jointly have a $24,800 standard deduction. The standard deduction is even higher if you are 65 or older.

The second hurdle is that you can claim unreimbursed medical expenses only to the extent that they exceed 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income. 

If your adjusted gross income is $75,000, for example, you could deduct only the amount of your qualifying medical expenses that are above $5,625.

Fortunately, there are a wide number of unreimbursed medical expenses available to add to your itemized deductions, from acupuncture treatments to x-rays. If you have high medical costs, and you're close to the 7.5 percent threshold, your expenses for COVID-19 PPE could put you over the top and allow you to deduct some of your overall medical expenses.

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Pay for PPE with FSA, HSA money

You can also use tax-advantaged health flexible spending accounts (health FSAs), Archer medical savings accounts (Archer MSAs), health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) or health savings accounts (HSAs) to pay for your PPE. If you do, however, you can't use those expenses as itemized medical expenses, since you already got a tax break on them. The same is true if you incur medical costs that your insurance covers in full.

Normally, FSA money has to be used by the end of the year, but COVID-19 relief legislation gives you until Dec. 31, 2021, to spend 2020 FSA money. (As a bonus, any money you put into an FSA this year will be available until Dec. 31, 2022.) There is no deadline for HSA reimbursements. Be sure to keep your receipts.

If you're a teacher, you can claim unreimbursed expenses for PPE purchases made after March 12, 2020, as an Educator Expense Deduction. Teachers get up to $250 of qualified expenses per year ($500 if married and filing jointly if both spouses are eligible educators, but not more than $250 each). This is a deduction you can take without having to itemize your taxes, so you don't have to worry about meeting the 7.5 percent medical deduction threshold or the standard deduction either.

The deadline for filing and paying federal income taxes is May 17, 2021.

John Waggoner covers all things financial for AARP, from budgeting and taxes to retirement planning and Social Security. Previously he was a reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance and USA Today and has written books on investing and the 2008 financial crisis. Waggoner's USA Today investing column ran in dozens of newspapers for 25 years.

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